Getting creative means fun for kids—and teachers
By Roxanne Claire
For many dance studios, summer is a time when families take time off for vacations, trips to the pool, and other summer-only activities. Attendance drops off dramatically—and so does your income. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Since 1998 my studio, Claire School of Dance in Houston, Texas, has kept its doors open during the summer with a series of camps for kids of all kinds.
Many parents look for daytime activities for their children during the summer. “Full-day” camps that run from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. are popular. Since these camps replicate school hours, they give children something to do while allowing the academic-year rhythm of family life to relax but not be disrupted. To accommodate working parents, some camps offer expanded hours. Others offer optional early drop-off and late pickup times for an additional fee. Camps for young children often run only in the mornings.
So think of summer as a time of adventure. Short summer camps, one or two weeks in length, allow you to give free rein to your creativity and bring in both income and new students. Short camps let you accommodate more students, since families are working around their vacation schedules, and their lower cost might attract parents who couldn’t afford a longer camp.
Targeting your audience
The focus of a summer camp depends on the age group served. Programs for elementary school students often fall into the “something fun to do” category, while programs for middle and high school students frequently target specific interests or skills.
The best programs blend fun with education, even for the smallest campers. Your target audience will determine both the theme and the structure of the camp. Young children, for example, will be attracted to fantasy themes and may also benefit from built-in free play. Older children will enjoy time to work on assignments that allow for self-expression, such as choreography or art projects, in addition to formal instruction.
Summer camps need not be limited to dance-related themes. Depending on your community and personal interests, you can offer a wide range of activities. Camp themes can be broadly interpreted, drawing in related subjects and developing activities suitable to each age group. This freedom to get creative with content tends to broaden your camps’ appeal, potentially bringing in more children, including boys. And it’s fun!
Whether you are inspired by your own children, a comment made by a parent, or by an online search, you can make a summer camp an act of creative genius, something uniquely yours. And when you have fun creating the camps, children will have fun attending them.
For young campers
Some of the themes I have used over the years include arts and nature, music history, anime, fencing, and fairies. To make them appealing to a broad population, I don’t include dance classes in all of my camps.
Arts and nature
Our arts and nature camp was developed for children ages 4 to 6. Since the name of our camp was “Dormouse,” our themes included not only famous artists and nature study but “Alice in Wonderland.” We developed activities such as collage making using items mentioned in the story, such as keys, playing cards, and chess pieces.
As part of our art theme, every day we read a children’s book on the life and work of a different artist and did an art project that either replicated that artist’s technique —“dribble” painting for Jackson Pollack, for example—or that artist’s subject, like lily pads for Monet.
For the nature side of the camp, we studied butterflies, ladybugs, seeds, and the sun. We made a small booklet on the life cycle of the butterfly, maintained an earthworm bin, sprouted seeds, and released ladybugs.
The emphasis on art projects and the creative exploration of nature kept this camp closely tied to the mission of our school (we specialize in stimulating a child’s imagination and encouraging individual creativity), yet broadened the school’s appeal.
Stories from ballet
An obvious choice for a summer dance program is a camp about famous ballets. In addition to favorites such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, think about other child-friendly choices such as The Firebird, Peter and the Wolf, The Sleeping Beauty, and Coppélia.
A Child’s Introduction to Ballet: The Stories, Music, and Magic of Classical Dance (a book and CD combination) familiarizes children with the stories and music of well-loved ballets. The realistic movements in the Barbie movies (which use computer-generated images based on actual New York City Ballet dancers) introduce ballet to children young enough to be more captivated by animation than by real people. Round out the program with Dover coloring books (available through Amazon) such as The Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book or Favorite Ballets Coloring Book, plus theme-related crafts.
Stories from opera
Opera offers a wealth of beautiful music and fun or interesting stories for children. Hansel and Gretel, Carmen, The Magic Flute, Aida, and The Barber of Seville are full of recognizable musical themes.
Operavox is a DVD of 30-minute animated versions of six operas, including The Magic Flute and The Barber of Seville. Another DVD version of The Magic Flute was directed by Julie Taymor, the director/designer of Lion King fame. The vintage (1954) version of Hansel and Gretel is a delightful “claymation” fantasy.
There are many opera storybooks and CDs aimed at children. The World’s Very Best Opera for Kids . . . in English makes opera easy for children to understand. World-famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti made the selections for another CD, My Favorite Opera for Children.
Activities can include acting out roles, decorating gingerbread houses, or making “magic” flutes out of the cardboard tubes from dry cleaning coathangers.
Ballet camps can use many children’s books as a spine. Ballerina: A Step by Step Guide to Ballet (by Jane Hackett), A Young Dancer (by Jill Krementz), We Love Ballet (by Jane Feldman), My First Ballet Book (by Kate Castle), and The Ballet Book (by Darcy Bussell) describe classroom etiquette, ballet steps, and the art of performance. Several of these books come with DVDs. Dance class, crafts, and, for older children, an end-of-camp performance round out the week’s activities.
A similar approach can be taken with music appreciation. Camps can be built around famous composers or a well-known piece of music. When broadly interpreted, this camp can provide hours of fun for even very young campers. My school’s Vivaciously Vivaldi! ©, designed for 4- to 6-year-olds, explores Venice, the Silk Road, and art based on—what else?—The Four Seasons. To give the camp wider appeal, we do not include dance classes; instead, the children play musical games that involve movement.
For older campers
The longer attention span, maturing taste, and greater dexterity of older children allow for a more sophisticated program and a wider range of subject material and craft ideas.
Camps for middle and high school students can go into a subject in depth. Performance camps are always a big hit. Whether your theme focuses on a classical work or a Broadway show, parents and students alike love the end-of-camp show.
Choreographers also make a good theme. Take George Balanchine: excerpts from films such as Dancing for Mr. B, Choreography by Balanchine, and Bringing Balanchine Back: New York City Ballet can provide background on his life and work, while learning some of his actual choreography gives students the physical experience of his genius.
The work of Twyla Tharp can be seen in Amadeus, Hair, and White Nights. Baryshnikov by Tharp: The Little Ballet/Sinatra Suite/Push Comes to Shove and Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra and More are double treats.
Other choreographers whose biographies and works are available on DVD include Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse. Contemporary choices include Merce Cunningham, Jirí Kylián, La La La Human Steps, and Pina Bausch.
Along with the videos, we offer appropriate styles of dance classes for each choreographer.
Combo classes for boys
Some subjects are of particular interest to boys, bringing students to your school who otherwise might not have been part of your demographic. Hip-hop classes can be part of a performance camp or can be combined with stencil or graffiti art lessons. Approaches that use physical theater or rhythm (think STOMP) can be especially attractive to boys.
Physical movement doesn’t have to be about dance. Two of our camps for older children were specifically aimed at boys. Both our fencing camp and our anime camp incorporated physical movement but neither was dance-related.
Our camp in anime, or Japanese animation, was the result of my older son’s fascination with Inuyasha and other anime cartoon shows. Our one-week camp for children ages 10 to 16 focused on both anime and all things Japanese. It included anime screenings and classes in Japanese language, calligraphy, and traditional art forms. We also provided martial arts classes, putting the emphasis not so much on fighting as on respect and self-discipline. (Something all the parents appreciated, no doubt!)
Our fencing camp came about because one of our parents was looking for a convenient fencing program. The instructor I found had years of experience working with young students and delivered a stimulating, rigorous, yet fun program that alternated between training and games. Most of the students were boys who continued afternoon fencing classes once the school year began. We even started an evening adult fencing class based on the interest of our students’ fathers.
Finding non-dance teachers
I do a lot of legwork before finalizing my camp plans. I have found language teachers through the local Japan American Society, on Craigslist, and through Internet searches and personal contacts. I found three excellent manga (Japanese cartoon) teachers by advertising on Craigslist and at the local art supply store. I called a local pottery supply company to ask who might teach raku and the Print Museum to see who could teach Japanese silk screening.
Many artists are available during the day, but availability can be an issue. One teacher who worked for an anime production company was given leave by his company to teach for an hour a day. At times I have scheduled the camp in the afternoon to make it easier for working people to teach for me. Working teachers can be scheduled for the 1:00 or 5:00 p.m. time slots. By taking a late lunch or leaving work a little early, the teachers are able to do their jobs and still teach my campers.
Getting the word out
Part of the fun of organizing a summer camp is the marketing. Once you have decided on your theme(s), the next step is to find a name for each camp. The name will facilitate choosing a recognizable logo and creating memorable promotional brochures and advertising. Think “Ballet ’n’ Broadway” rather than the ho-hum “Summer Dance Camp.”
Brochures, whether printed from a template off your computer or professionally done, are an excellent means of getting out the word. Postcards are an inexpensive way to blanket your school’s neighborhood. Numerous online printing companies can print several thousand cards inexpensively.
Mailing lists can be purchased from a local mailing house according to the demographics you request. These mailing houses can also address and add postage to ease your workload. Since people get a lot of mail, most of which is tossed into the trash, your goal is to create something that parents will want to keep on their refrigerators.
There are other ways of promoting your camp. Donating a slot in one or more camps to a local school’s fund-raiser (think silent auction) can help establish your presence in the community. And it’s a worthy cause!
Once you’ve gotten the word out, you can turn your attention to the camp itself. Designing a set of lesson plans will help keep you on track and help you write your shopping list. Posting your schedule will let parents know which activities you have planned (especially important since they won’t see what the children are doing). They’ll appreciate knowing what they’re paying for.
The always-important teacher/student ratio becomes even more important when the students are present all day. Helpers—perhaps some of your older students—are essential, especially in camps for children who are too young to go to the bathroom by themselves. Helpers can also assist with crafts and snacks. Daycare guidelines are helpful here in anticipating your staffing needs. I recommend one staff person, either an adult or a helper, for every six or seven students.
Making the camp memorable is an important part of building your brand—making your school known for the quality of its programs. Keepsake craft projects are one way to remind both children and parents of the fun to be had at your camps. At many of our camps, we personalize T-shirts with each child’s photograph or a piece of her artwork.
We frequently post camp photographs in our waiting room. You can post photographs of all the fun your students are having in camp on your school’s Facebook page. (You do have one, right?) And by linking the Facebook page to your school’s website splash page, even visitors to your website will have the opportunity to see your camps in action.
The best kind of marketing is word of mouth. Creating summer buzz can add to both your reputation and your bottom line. Now that sizzles!
How big? Space often dictates the size of enrollment. For reasons of safety and program quality, camps that take place at my studio are capped at 12 to 15 campers. This is a comfortable size for both my available rooms and for one teacher to handle with an assistant. For three years I rented classroom space in a neighborhood elementary school for my arts and nature camp. Enrollment jumped from eight students the first year to 40 the third year.
Do I need a license? Licensing requirements will differ from community to community and are frequently available online. Although I am not required to obtain a childcare license for my camps, I do follow licensing requirements.
What about medical concerns? Our enrollment form asks about food allergies and we take those into consideration when planning snacks. We do not give children medication.
How do you schedule teachers? Our teachers are responsible for either a 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. or 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. schedule. For our anime camp, which had specialized classes, teachers were responsible only for their own subject. I supervised the overall camp or hired one of the teachers to be the “gap” leader, an adult presence between visiting teachers.
What should I charge? Prices are determined by two factors. First, I multiply the price of a single class by the number of camp hours and add in costs of snacks and art supplies. Second, I look at what other local camps charge. Because I hire highly trained or specialized teachers and because my camps often require a lot of art supplies, my prices are sometimes in the “high middle” range. You do need to be sensitive to your market. I consider my school to be a “boutique,” offering services that cannot be found elsewhere. Other schools may have different price considerations.